Education and the future of work

By TOM CAMPBELL

In the process of establishing education reform, the state has adopted four excellent learning goals. It was a priority for schools to initially focus on the first two learning goals that raise standards for basic academic skills. Unfortunately, that focus has meant that little emphasis has been placed on the second two goals that equip students with skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and preparation for the future of work and life-long learning. Until that happens our schools will not be able to adequately prepare our students in the fundamental skills of the workplace.

When employers detail their desired characteristics for job candidates, they list interpersonal skills, teamwork, verbal communication, analytical, computer, written communication and leadership abilities.

A 1999 survey of "Workforce Training: Needs and Practices of Washington State Employers," similarly details the difficulties that employers are having locating employees with the right mix of skills. A survey by the State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board of more than 1,000 employers listed the percentage of firms experiencing difficulty in finding qualified applicants with certain kinds of abilities and job skills.

The following were the rank-ordered skill deficiencies: occupation-specific skills (90.5 percent), problem-solving or critical-thinking skills (89.8 percent), positive work habits and attitudes (84.8 percent), communication skills (83.5 percent), computer skills (78.6 percent), ability to adapt (78.9 percent) and teamwork skills (78.4 percent). On the other end of the spectrum, fewer firms had difficulty finding applicants with reading skills (36.2 percent), writing skills (57.4 percent) and math skills (63 percent). These broader skills are often called foundation skills. They were developed by Secretary of Labor through the Secretary’s Commission on Advancing Necessary Skills in 1992. The SCANS fit closely with education reform because they provide a set of skill standards by which to measure students performance on Goals 3 and 4, dealing with problem solving and understanding work.

It is clear that a fundamental mission of the education system, especially K-12, is to encourage students to learn their basic academic skills. Employers and colleges and universities should not have to be in a position of remediation. The larger, more challenging mission is to assist all students to acquire the fundamental problem-solving, interpersonal and communication skills that are so critical to employers. These skills are not just for vocational or career-focused students. Any student going to college should acquire these basic work and life skills because they promote success in any environment. They just happen to be the most important skills sought after by employers.

The skills employers require will challenge teachers to make major changes in the classroom. Traditional classrooms are focused on teacher-centered assignments and standardized tests. In fact, the increasing obsession with improving student scores on tests such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (often called WASL) is pre-occupying teachers time. Many teachers are overwhelmed with the requirements of managing a classroom and focus on "teaching to the test" with time-tested techniques. However, these teaching methods do not often help our students to acquire the broader foundation skills.

In order to teach the skills employers need most, students will need to be empowered to work in teams and to present their results to their peers and experts. Students can build leadership skills by identifying and solving real-life problems in the community and work place. Technology can serve as an important communication tool for research and collaborative problem solving. Teachers can serve more as guides to learning, utilizing coaching and mentoring skills.

Employers also need to be involved in helping link academic and occupational learning. If employers are serious about needing to close skill gaps and deficiencies, they need to articulate their needs and become involved in schools through internships, job shadows, class projects, training and speakers.

The need to improve the broader skill sets — or SCANS — is an important challenge to schools and employers. The foundation skills are just that: They provide an important basis by which to add the specific technical skills and job competencies that all learners need to be successful in the world of work. In fact, the focus on skills standards is built on what is called the pyramid of competencies. The foundation skills form the base; the middle tier is for technical skills, and the top tier are the job specific skills that are often taught on the job or by specific industry credentials.

The bottom line is that activities in applied and work-based learning lead to improved results across a number of measures. Research has shown that students engaged in applied learning and school-to-career activities actually have higher academic results. Employers have found reduced training costs and higher employee productivity. Communities find more engaged citizens and strengthened economic base.

The good news is that there are many fine examples of applied learning and integration of occupational skills in our school districts. The bad news is that they are few and the drive to improve test scores is making them more difficult to fund and develop.

The focus on improving the broad workplace skills of our students should be a win-win for schools, students, employers, and the community. Let us work together on strategies that effectively address all four goals.

Tom Campbell is the president/ceo of SnoNet, a non-profit Internet company in Snohomish County. He also serves as the director of the SchoolWork Initiative, an 18 school district consortium in North King, Snohomish and Island counties, and director of the Snohomish County Workforce Development Council.

Washington State Education Learning Goals

Goal 1: Read with comprehension, write with skill, and communicate effectively and responsibly in a variety of ways and settings.

Goal 2: Know and apply the core concepts and principles of mathematics; social, physical, and life sciences; civics and history; geography; arts; and health and fitness.

Goal 3: Think analytically, logically, and creatively, and to integrate experience and knowledge to form reasoned judgments and solve problems.

Goal 4: Understand the importance of work and how performance, effort, and decisions directly affect career and educational opportunities.

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